This list will rank NFL returners by the size of their statistics, not their actual abilities. It's safe to say that someone like Jamaal Charles, for instance, is one of the more skilled returners in the league, but you won't find him on this list because we don't think he'll be doing much return work this year.
The numbers that tend to matter in most leagues are return yards and touchdowns. Given that touchdowns on returns tend to occur only one or two times per season for even the elite returners, the more important of the two stats is yardage.
Kick returns afford much more yardage than punt returns, therefore leagues that give points for return yardage tend to give greater value to kick returners, particularly those whose teams have awful defenses. The more points a returner's defense allows, the more kick return opportunities he'll receive.
1. Josh Cribbs, WR, CLE
Cribbs' remarkable 2009 season, which saw him score four times on special teams while eclipsing 2,000 total return yards, is highly unlikely to happen again this year. Still, he easily stands at the top of this list because he's totaled at last 1,000 return yards and one special teams touchdown in each of his six years in the league. No one in the league approached Cribbs' level of success during last year, and he remains the heavy favorite to be the league's best in 2010. With the arrivals of Javier Arenas and C.J. Spiller in the 2010 Draft, however, his unchallenged status as the league's best may be expiring.
2. Javier Arenas, CB, KC
Arenas might be the best punt returner in the league from Day 1. He returned seven for touchdowns at Alabama, and the Chiefs picked him 50th overall more for his return abilities than for his cornerback play. He returned both kicks and punts in Kansas City's first preseason game, and flashed his potential on a 42-yard kick return. Arenas is a bit under the radar right now because many assumed that Dexter McCluster would be the returner for Kansas City, but it's not likely to be the case. McCluster hardly ever played on special teams at Mississippi, and he wasn't particularly successful when he did.
3. C.J. Spiller, RB, BUF
Although Spiller has tons of talent as a running back, he also should be one of the league's best returners. He was beyond belief in college - even better than Arenas. But with the recent injuries to Fred Jackson (hand) and Marshawn Lynch (ankle), Spiller will be playing more running back in the beginning of the season than anyone expected. That means he'll have less energy to devote to returning punts and kicks. Still, Spiller needed only 32 returns to score five touchdowns last year. Whenever Jackson and/or Lynch are ready to go, Buffalo will have no choice but to utilize Spiller's return abilities.
4. Darren Sproles, RB, SD
Sproles isn't really an elite returner, but he's the best San Diego has, and he seems to have both the kick and punt return spots locked down. Considering that Ryan Mathews is expected to be the feature running back this year for San Diego, it's hard to imagine San Diego is paying Sproles $7 million to be just a third-down back. If he's going to be worth that money this year, he needs to be an impact returner. He totaled nearly 1,500 return yards last year and has found paydirt four times on returns throughout his career, so he should be productive in this role again in 2010.
5. Danny Amendola, WR, STL
Amendola is in a tough battle for a roster spot right now, but we think his punt return for a touchdown against the Vikings will make it difficult for the Rams to cut him. He totaled nearly 2,000 return yards last year and posted solid averages on both kicks and punts. If he does make the team, he'll still need to hold off Mardy Gilyard, who was a brilliant returner at Cincinnati. If Amendola's situation were more secure, we'd have him as high as No. 2. But given how good of a returner Gilyard was in college (five return TDs at Cincinnati), Amendola probably will be on a short leash.
6. Percy Harvin, WR, MIN
Even though he doesn't return punts, Harvin provides mammoth production as a kick returner. He made 1,156 yards and two touchdowns out of 42 returns in 15 games last year. Anyone who's seen Harvin play knows this was no fluke. The fact that Darius Reynaud seems set as the team's punt returner limits Harvin's yardage potential, however, and the Vikings tend to not give up many points, so he doesn't field as many kickoffs as you would hope. That, and his migraines are a problematic issue.
7. Eddie Royal, WR, DEN
Royal isn't the most dynamic returner in the league, but he's good enough to hold down both the kick and punt returner spots in Denver. He found the end zone once in each role in 2009, and he should go over 1,000 total return yards in 2010. The presence of Perrish Cox, an accomplished returner at Oklahoma State, is a bit of a concern, but we're guessing that Royal is too trusted in the role to lose it at this point. Despite his effectiveness, his opportunities were limited last year, and they might be again this year. But we do expect the Broncos defense to be significantly worse without Elvis Dumervil, so Royal should see more kick returns than in years past.
8. Clifton Smith, RB, TB
We'd have Smith up at three if we could count on him staying healthy, but Smith has very significant concussion worries. Given the number of concussions he's already suffered, it seems likely that he won't make it through the whole year. But when he is playing, he's dangerous as both a kick and punt returner. He totaled over 1,100 return yards in 11 games last year before concussions ended his season, and he scored twice on returns the year before that. If he's lucky enough to play 16 games, go ahead and move him up to No. 3.
9. Ted Ginn, WR, SF
Ginn has been very hit-or-miss as a returner in his career, but it looks like he'll be handed the kick return job at San Francisco after scoring twice on kick returns in 2009. He'll have to compete with Kyle Williams for the punt return job, but if he can take that away from Williams, Ginn should put up a good amount of return yardage and will have plenty of opportunities to score. He should easily pass 1,000 return yards this year, and the upside is somewhere around 1,500 and a couple touchdowns.
10. Jacoby Jones, WR, HOU
Jones would be ranked higher if the Texans hadn't drafted Trindon Holliday with the specific purpose of being a return specialist. Jones is one of the elite punt returners in the league and emerged as a formidable kick returner last year, taking his 24 returns for 638 yards and a touchdown. He also added 426 yards on 39 punt returns. Holliday reportedly isn't showing much as a wide receiver, so we think he'll have trouble making the team. The same goes for Andre Davis. If both of those players are gone, Jones could set new career highs as a returner.
11. Johnny Knox, WR, CHI
Knox appears to be one league's best kick returners. The only question with him is whether the Bears will actually let him return kicks. He's somewhat of a favorite to emerge as the team's No. 1 receiver this year, and safety Danieal Manning has experience returning kicks instead if the team wants to keep Knox fresh for running routes. Still, he averaged 29 yards per kick return last year, taking just 32 returns for 927 yards and a touchdown in 15 games. It might turn out that the gap between him and Manning is too significant to ignore, and he might force his way into the role again this year.
12. Stefan Logan, WR, PIT
Logan didn't score as a returner last year, but he was very effective from a yardage standpoint. He averaged 26.7 yards per kick return and 9.3 yards per punt return while totaling over 1,700 return yards, consistently providing Pittsburgh with solid field position. He doesn't appear to have a high ceiling, however, and we list him this low because Pittsburgh has two impressive rookie receivers in Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown who are both very accomplished returners, particularly Brown. Logan is in serious danger of getting cut, but he might catch on somewhere else.
Brandon Banks, WR, WAS
Banks was an incredible returner in college and probably will be good at the same role in the NFL, but he's not a guarantee to make a roster due to being extremely small. At just 5-7 and 155 pounds, Banks is barely visible on the field. Maybe that's why he returned five kickoffs for touchdowns in two years at Kansas State and returned a punt for a touchdown in Washington's first preseason game.
Deji Karim, RB, JAC
Karim got a lot of work as a kick returner in Jacksonville's first game, and he was very successful. As a burner who runs low to the ground, Karim has the making of an elusive target in the open field, and he was just that as he took four returns back for 152 yards against the Eagles.
Walter Thurmond, CB, SEA
Thurmond is very elusive when he has the ball, and he's making a strong impression at Seahawks practices so far. He didn't get much return work in college, but he was very effective in his brief showing, taking 11 punts for 165 yards and a touchdown and averaging 27.7 yards per kick return.
Damian Williams, WR, TEN
Williams has been mentioned often as a potential kickoff and punt returner for Tennessee this year, but he only has a history as a punt returner. He returned two punts for touchdowns last year at USC, and it'll be tough for anyone on the Titans' roster to keep him from claiming that role. While he's an unknown as a kick returner, he might win the job by default.
Jordan Shipley, WR, CIN
Shipley is competing with Quan Cosby and Adam Jones for the punt returning spot in Cincinnati, but he probably has the upper hand in the battle due to his status as a 3rd-round pick. He scored three times on punt returns in his last two years at Texas, but he probably won't warrant attention for fantasy return purposes unless he demonstrates ability on kickoffs, too.